The four members of the Tan* family sat there in grim tension. The air was thick with anger and sadness.
Elder Mr Tan muttered about how shameful it was to be seeing a counsellor, much like ‘washing dirty linen in public’. Blaming their family problems on Mrs Tan’s constant nagging, he added bitterly, “Who can stand living with an old cow like her, who smells and snores at night?”
Terence*, the son who arranged for the family counselling, implored his father not to be so unkind. Caught between two warring parties, he had been trying for some time to get his parents to make peace. He had even tried asking his pastor to speak to them. This came after Mr Tan complained of his wife locking him out after a quarrel.
Mrs Tan spoke up: “He wants to go out, might as well don’t come home.” “So dirty, so dirty,” she repeated, voicing suspicions that her husband had a mistress.
Heather*, the youngest Tan, clearly felt very uneasy. She had tried to help by having her parents live with her so that they could be closer to the grandchildren. This, however, proved short-lived when she had to house her mother-in-law who fell and broke her hip.
The Tan family’s problem is unfortunately not unique. It appears to be a growing trend.
I have noticed couples, married for 30 years and more, talking about wanting to leave the marriage and live apart. In many cases, their problems have a long history. Many do not get a divorce or a legal separation. Instead, they choose to live separately, often with one of their children.
Some may argue that the choice of some senior couples to live apart may not be a bad thing. To give their children stability, they may have sacrificed their personal happiness in the earlier years. But in their remaining years, why continue living together in an unhappy relationship?
I am all for individuals, young and old, making choices that can bring them satisfaction and wellness. I find it sad that these senior couples endured many unhappy years of being married only in name.
Marriage, a God-given institution, is meant to be satisfying and a blessing to both partners as well as to others.
Thus, I wonder if we should encourage couples, young and old, to keep their marriages alive and vibrant. Achieving this is not complicated. But, it is also not easy.
Firstly, work hard at cherishing each other. In the initial years together, couples do this naturally. As the years go by, however, it becomes harder. It may be that we start taking each other for granted. Learn to remember what your spouse does that you appreciate.
Then find ways to communicate your appreciation. One is never too old to say “I like that” and “I love you”. If you do not say it today, tomorrow may be too late. Since losing her husband in a tragic accident, a young widow has bitterly regretted not saying these words enough to him.
Stay in touch, both through words and in matters of the heart. This requires constant communication. I have seen just as many marriages coming to grief when couples drift apart as when a third party is involved. Strive to make your spouse your best friend or soulmate.
Finally, learn to be generous with forgiveness. Over the years of living together, many things your spouse does will annoy you. Learn to let them go. Recently, my wife joked that my middle name should be Chip as I keep chipping her china. I am glad she tries to let it go. I too am trying to be more careful with the tableware.
It is only when we exercise patience and grace that we can hope to live and grow old together in peace and harmony.
* Not their real names.
Benny Bong has been a family and marital therapist for more than 30 years, and is a certified work-life consultant. He was the first recipient of the AWARE Hero Award in 2011 and is a member of Kampong Kapor Methodist Church.